In the fall of 2018, as the Senate weighed the controversial nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court, all eyes focused on a handful of Republican and Democratic senators who might decide the vote. If enough Republicans broke with the president and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, the nomination could be blocked. If enough Democrats sided with the president and the majority leader, it would be inevitable.
The final vote was 50-48 to confirm Kavanaugh. One Republican refused to support Trump’s pick, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. One Democrat joined the Republicans, Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Both represented states that had voted for Trump in 2016. Murkowski, who was not up for reelection, would be widely hailed for her political courage. Manchin, who was up for reelection and would win by the narrowest of margins in November, was portrayed as a pragmatist who “knew what he needed to do” to hold his seat.
Yet those were far from the only notable votes on the Kavanaugh nomination. Of equal interest were the votes from Republican senators representing more liberal states that had backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and yet supported the president’s scandal-plagued nominee in 2018; and from Democrats from more conservative states that had backed Trump and yet opposed Kavanaugh.
That’s where the political costs were counted in 2018 and continue to be counted today. A pair of Republicans who cast critical vote for Kavanaugh—Maine’s Susan Collins and Colorado’s Cory Gardner—could well lose their seats this year. A Democrat who was already facing an uphill race in a heavily Republican state, North Dakota’s Heidi Heidkamp, rejected Kavanaugh and faced defeat in 2018. Three Democrats in what were seen at tighter contests also opposed Kavanaugh and also lost: Missouri’s Claire McCaskell, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, and Florida’s Bill Nelson. A Kavanaugh-backing Republican, Dean Heller, was beaten in Nevada.
To be sure, every political contest has its own dynamics, and the choices senators made on Supreme Court picks in 2018 were not the only issues, but it is simply a reality that a high-stakes nomination fight playing out in the weeks before an election can be a factor in that election.
So is the lesson that Democrats seeking to win over conservative states that have backed Trump are dooming themselves politically if they oppose Trump’s effort to ram trough another Supreme Court nominee before the 2020 election?
Just ask Montana Senator Jon Tester. In 2018, he was running for reelection in a state that had backed Trump by a margin of more than 20 points two years earlier, and he had already opposed another Trump nominee for the high court, Justice Neil Gorsuch. But, unlike many Democrats who were in tight spots in 2018, Tester was reasonably quick and extremely clear in announcing his opposition to Kavanaugh’s nomination. More than a week before the Senate vote, the senator from Montana declared that he has a long list of reasons to reject the nominee.
“I have concerns that Judge Kavanaugh defended the PATRIOT Act instead of Montanans’ privacy,” Tester announced. He continued:
I have concerns about his support for more dark money in politics. I have concerns about who he believes is in charge of making personal health decisions. And I have deep concerns about the allegations of sexual assault against Judge Kavanaugh. Unfortunately, Judge Kavanaugh couldn’t find time to discuss these concerns with me in person, so the only information I have is from what he said in his hearings. I’ll be voting against him.
That gave Republicans plenty of time to beat up on Tester. Trump jumped in, offering strong support for State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who entered the 2018 contest with a record of running and winning at the statewide level. So did the big special-interest money from DC and around the country, which poured millions into attack ads that would frame the most expensive Senate race in Montana history.
Yet, when the votes were counted on November 6, 2018, Tester prevailed by around 18,000 votes, for a 50-46 margin. Not a landslide. But definitely a win.
How did Tester do it? By grounding his discussion of the nomination fight, and all the other issues of that election year, in the issues closest to hearts and minds of voters in his state. That’s why the first objection that he mentioned was the nominee’s role in defending the assaults on civil liberties contained in the PATRIOT Act—smart politics in a state where both liberals and conservatives worry a lot about privacy rights. That’s also why the senator who has always placed a big emphasis on personal values and accountability spoke bluntly about his deep concern over the allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh. Knowing the issues that matter in the state that you represent, knowing the values and the sensibilities of that state—and speaking to them without apology—matters, even at a point when our politics are being nationalized by the media.
Tester knows this, and he has penned a fine new book on the politics of place, titled, Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America (HarperCollins). Writing not just as a senator but as a working farmer from Big Sandy, Mont., Tester explains how he “won a third term in a red state after voting against Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and after the president, and his kid, and the vice president, tried their damnedest to beat me.” It’s a compelling argument that the best way for Democrats to “survive the current test of our fragile experiment with democracy” is by remaining authentic, and true to a set of core values, even when national party strategists and pundits urge caution and compromise.
This is a book that speaks to the immediate moment, as Trump and McConnell prepare to ram through another Supreme Court nominee in the week before a critical election. Many of the most closely contested Senate races are in states that Trump won big in 2016, and where he could win again in 2020. States like Alabama (where another courageous opponent of the Kavanaugh nomination, Doug Jones, is running), Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, and Montana. Democrats candidates will have to take a stand. If they want some counsel on how to do it right, they would be wise to read Jon Tester’s Grounded.